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Dark Phoenix (2019)
A Flame All but Extinguished
I avoided reading any reviews prior to viewing 'Dark Phoenix', however I couldn't help but be disheartened by the poor critical and popular reaction. Of course you should never let these bias your opinion of a film, but when you want a series to succeed, especially one that started so brightly, it's hard not to be disappointed. The poor write ups are justified however, as all the elements that made 'First Class' great have slowly been eroded over the last few films, culminating in a lacklustre manifestation of a fabled comic storyline rather than a re-birth after Ratner's terrible 'The Last Stand'. A certain someone once said that 'with great power comes great responsibility,' yet as with several other superhero films, those behind the camera seem to have forgotten this important truth: in this case a responsibility to stay true to character motivations in the face of a cosmic force of seemingly infinite power is lazily tossed aside. Just as in 'Suicide Squad', an ill-defined, overwhelming and under-utilised destructive power is never properly examined or integrated.
I only know the outline of Claremont and co's 'Dark Phoenix saga', yet this felt like a repeat of 'Apocalypse' in the sense that a bigger, more threatening idea has been utilised at the expense of both the original comic's complexity and the film's character arcs. Yes, the cast, Turner in particular, do their best with what they are given. Yes, the myriad set pieces are impressive in their own way, and yes, it's not totally devoid of any engagement with character minutiae. Yet when these set pieces undermine any possibility of subtlety, and dialogue amounts to repeated vagueries such as 'when I can't control it, bad things happen', these elements amount to little more than simple saving graces. Indeed the few attempts at utilising the resources offered by the comic to examine flaws and complexities in characters such as Xavier are brief and simpleton in comparison to the nuanced offering in 'First Class', with its wonderful expansion of Magneto's tortured, conflicting need for revenge, redemption, fear and friendship. But the crux of the film's failings is in the fact that the Phoenix Force's introduction and the subsequent events seemingly destroy any sense of character consistency or depth. Without giving too much away, a charater's demise which promises multifaceted reactions and enduring conflict fizzles out into blandness. That perennial sense of dual feeling carried so well by McKellen and Stewart is totally skewered here in an exacerbation of 'Apocalypse's' flawed interactions. Moreover, Turner's Grey, with all the exciting possibilities afforded by a great actress and rich source material, is allowed little more than hackneyed cliches, baffling generalisations and confused motivations.
In the end this all results in a distinctly average offering, much like 'Apocalypse' before it. The final scenes are a disappointing parody of what has come before, and all the fantastic CGI and rousing Zimmerian score in the world can't make up for the film's central failing in its abrogation of its responsibilities to what were always the series' strongest assets, its great cast, depth of source material and engaging, complex characters. *sigh*
Night at the Museum (2006)
It's not gaining a place in history, but it's fine for a one-time family visit.
Fairly standard fare from Stiller & co., with the archetypal troubled father-son dynamic used to fairly limited effect. Stiller is solid but unremarkable as Larry, whilst supporting acts provide a mixed bag: you can't help but like Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt, however appearances from stars such as Owen Wilson and Ricky Gervais bring the usual ham-fisted humour and blandness. A pleasant storyline that is enjoyable enough if you're willing to ignore the plot holes is bolstered by occasional laughs and an interesting setting that gives the cast and crew a lot to play with. One disappointment however is the missed opportunity to delve further into the many historical periods, cultures and characters on offer. Whilst some brief flourishes and gestures are made, there is ultimately little serious engagement with potentially fascinating topics. Given the target audience you can understand Levy's reluctance to delve too deeply, however in a film populated with several actors capable of both comedic and dramatic turns, it feels like a funny, heartwarming, but also more substantial child-friendly pic was definitely within reach.
In short, ultimately it's what you would expect, a well-worn emotional arc played out in a setting that admittedly allows for some laughs, occasionally straying beyond expected and conventional humour. The museum is central to the film's successes but also its weaknesses: a richer, more rewarding picture could have been achieved if the museum's startling exhibits were more fully realised, and the incredible history behind them more incisively examined.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
'I've seen things you people wouldn't believe...'
My memories of Blade Runner 2049 won't be washed away any time soon. More Blade Runner than Blade Runner? No. And yet this is what makes Blade Runner 2049 brilliant. Of course any consideration of Villeneuve's film must take account of the now sacrosanct original, and this is something Villeneuve himself has evidently been aware of from the outset. It is obvious throughout the film, tonally, thematically, musically, and in almost every other aspect that not only the director but the entire cast and crew hold a deep reverence for the original film, in a manner akin to its many fans. Again and again the film draws inspiration from Blade Runner, as the 'feel' of Scott's film imbues this sequel in its entirety, and yet, astoundingly, Villeneuve's production balances indebtedness with independence. Due to skillful and assured direction, emotionally nuanced performances, incisive cinematography and sound, and perhaps most importantly, some truly beautiful writing, this film has the strength to emerge from the shadow of Blade Runner and become its own distinct entity.
In Blade Runner Roy Batty declares that it's 'quite a thing to live in fear', and yet Villeneuve's film manages to avoid this traumatic state, dreading neither the weight of the original nor the subsequent expectation upon its shoulders, as it cleverly recalls Scott's film whilst following its own direction. 2049 builds upon the eclectic themes of its predecessor in a thoughtful, moving and sometimes shocking manner, satisfying audience expectations given the arc of the original story - Villeneuve playfully echoes its diegetic and moral ambiguities - without ever sinking into the kind of palimpsestic homage we've witnessed in films such as The Force Awakens.
Once again Gosling is on fine form, and whilst some critics might mistakenly interpret his performance as restricted and somewhat lifeless, he in fact offers both the quiet fortitude and humanity that the role demands; you can understand why he was so desired for the part. Stylistic and character based twists upon the original characters abound, and yet in reprising his role as Deckard Ford also excels, whilst the supporting cast are all committed and, crucially, in tune with the aura of the film. Jared Leto's performance is perhaps slightly melodramatic at points for some, however he is integral to some of the film's strongest moments (one very raw scene in particular stands out - you'll know it when you see it).
My only criticism would be that at 163 minutes the film loses a little of the focused intensity which contributes to the original's brilliance, however the emotional payoff for this extended length is rewarding and not altogether misguided. In the end such criticisms are largely nitpicking, as the film excels in all areas and stands as one of the strongest releases of the year. Bravo to Villeneuve and co., they can certainly be proud of what they have produced. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid is that much like Scott did so powerfully in his original (after the excision of certain studio-led material), Villeneuve and his team have produced a visually immersive, gripping and considered interrogation of questions central to not only those in the audience, and not even simply those in the world around them, but also those that will come after Blade Runner 2049's release. Consequently it feels as though this too will maintain its place in popular culture, and in doing so remind us of the power of cinema to understand humanity's past, present and future.